Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dickinson director Silas Howard on how he focuses on “the mess, not the message”

Silas Howard
Silas Howard
Photo: Shervin Lainez

Silas Howard is quickly becoming one of the busiest TV directors working today, juggling tearjerker network dramas like This Is Us and queer-centered streaming series like Tales From The City with sweet family comedies like Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. But Howard first broke into the industry as a queercore icon (he played guitar for Tribe 8) turned queer filmmaker—his groundbreaking debut film, 2001’s By Hook Or By Crook, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win multiple awards, including the Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival in 2002. With By Hook Or By Crook, Howard defied the expectation of centering trauma in queer and trans narratives, crafting (and acting in) a picaresque buddy comedy that was set during the AIDS crisis, but not defined by it.

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Howard’s career is dotted with firsts and superlatives: In 2015, he became the first trans director to helm an episode of Transparent, Joey (then-Jill) Soloway’s Amazon dramedy that was one of the first shows to center on a trans character. When he joined the directing roster at Pose, Howard worked with the largest trans cast in a drama ever. And Howard’s watched as LGBTQ+ stories garnered greater support and resources, even as trans talent is often still sidelined. As he told The A.V. Club earlier this summer, Howard knows the work is far from done.

Though much of Howard’s recent work has been on the small screen, including a stint on Apple TV+’s Dickinson, it courses with the same defiant spirit as his shoestring-budget feature debut. The A.V. Club spoke with Howard about his career, intersectionality, representation, and why he chooses to focus on the mess instead of messaging.

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The A.V. Club: It’s been almost 20 years since your debut feature film, By Hook Or By Crook. Part of the reason it was groundbreaking is that it’s a queer buddy comedy, which is still kind of rare. Looking back at the film, what do you consider its legacy?

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Silas Howard: When we first set out to make By Hook Or By Crook, Boys Don’t Cry had come out, which was a very intense story. I know the director, Kimberly Peirce. Harry Dodge [Howard’s By Hook Or By Crook co-star] and I had both auditioned for it, which was kind of funny. I think Kim still has those tapes. But we really wanted to make a film that was about a friendship and not about somebody dying. We wanted to show our lives in connection to each other, because that’s how everybody sort of builds their world. Whether they’d been alienated from their families for whatever reason, if it’s because they’re LGBTQ or some other falling out, they have to build another close bond with people. So our big pitch was about a friendship that’s transformative. And that did feel radical to us. It wasn’t a high-concept action thing. We worked from this idea of, in the case of Shy, this nihilistic desire to become a folk hero for doing some crime, and they end up being heroic by just helping this person right next to them.

That was all very intentional. And we did not talk about their gender; [the lead characters] just called each other “he.” And because they weren’t necessarily passing, they called each other “she” in front of clerks or the police. But we really wanted to just allow people to connect without explaining ourselves, because that’s the kind of power dynamic that I think keeps people at a more voyeuristic position instead of a bonding position.

AVC: Something I’ve spoken to a few showrunners and producers about recently is that when you’re telling a story that’s outside of your experience—say, Damon Lindelof tackling racial injustice in Watchmen—it’s always more potent when you involve people who have those lived experiences, who come from those backgrounds. When it comes to trans stories or LGBTQ+ stories more broadly, does it feel like the industry is making some headway in this respect? 

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SH: The industry keeps trying to step up—I think they can just step up a little faster and be more committed—by bringing in more voices to tell these stories, because lived experience has value. Before, the idea was that any writer can write anything. And that might be true, but we’re talking about equity, not equality. We don’t all start from the same place, but our experiences have so much value. And so the system that kind of looked at your bio, what TV show you worked on, as a measure of whether you were good for the job, is kind of outdated. What you want to look at is what is the kind of work that somebody does, what is their lived experience, and how does it connect to your show? Because instead of thinking of inclusivity as this one-way street where the powers that be are giving a chance to somebody, it’s actually a two-way street, where they’re getting access to all of these details. The specificity of that brings a more universal story, and I think that that is the big win. It’s an opportunity for both sides of that equation to expand their understanding of each other.

I directly benefited from [the producers of] Transparent saying they wanted trans people behind the lens. I would not have gotten that chance if it were left to the regular hiring policy, because my stories, my films, are made on a low budget because of the kinds of people that I’m centering. The budget for those kind of stories is not so readily available. On Transparent, they had consultants for trans representation; when they were exploring race, I was like, oh, it would be great to have consultants who are looking at relationships to race. And instead of one, have two—because with the “rule of one,” you have this one person supposedly representing something, a group or an identity, that’s so large. You need to have multiple voices.

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As I’ve moved on to other shows, I’ve had the chance to work with authentic casting. Everything’s Going To Be Okay has three cast members that are on the autism spectrum. One of them, Kayla Cromer, plays one of the main characters, and she’s phenomenal. She had to do these really tough scenes, things that would be hard for any actor. There was a scene where as a director, I had to get inside her head as she becomes overwhelmed trying to figure out if she can make it in New York City. I didn’t want to do my version of it; I wanted to do what felt absolutely accurate. I didn’t want it to be one of these weird guessing games that people do when they’re creating outside of their experience. It still doesn’t represent everything about that experience, but it feels specific. That’s the goal, trying to find something that is true and honest to that experience.

The A.V. Club: The other side of that coin is suggesting that people from marginalized groups can’t speak to what goes on in a dominant group. You know, “people of color can’t write about white characters.” But marginalized people are constantly asked to empathize with a viewpoint that isn’t necessarily our own, whether it’s in a book, film, or TV show. It’s like we train for this from the day we start consuming culture.  

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SH: Yes, exactly. Also, I’ve been saying for years that if it’s a good story, I’ll connect to whoever is in the center of that story. But what makes a good story is the agency that the writers have to create this role, where they’re comfortable taking risks. If you’re taking risks in a world that’s not your own, you’re usually not as comfortable. That’s how we sometimes end up with stories where we don’t have flaws, but we’re also not fully developed. But we’re not saintly people, we’re not trauma-only people. We have the full range of mistakes and dreams and delusions. That power is in the centering, because if a story’s on the sidelines, that’s the way it’s going to be taken in, and the lens of the show is what tells us a lot.

Pose is a great example: Here you have multiple trans women of color, and what you see are these dynamics—chosen family and betrayal. I’ve had friends who grew up in very different settings from that of Pose, and watching the show has really changed them or had a huge impact on them. Because it’s about family and hope. And hope isn’t something you come by easily. I think it’s really hard-fought for.

AVC: The Pose episode you directed, “Mother’s Day,” is one of the most memorable episodes of the show. There’s typically a kind of house style on TV shows, so what was it like on Pose? And how were you able to put your own stamp on that established tone or style?

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SH: I’m a collaborator; I think of filmmaking mainly as something that I’ve done in a community. First, my queer community, then when I went to UCLA, it was filming in my UCLA and queer community, where we helped each other out. But with TV, when you’re doing your bloc or your episode, you’re really babysitting that episode for the show. You’re taking care to make sure that everything in the script is there. You know all of those beats. If there’s anything that’s missing that you think would be helpful, you just go and you pitch those ideas with no attachment to whether they happen or not, which is a great freedom for me. As a director on an indie, it is all on you. You’re asking yourself those questions. But when you’re on a TV show, you’re kind of giving it up to the show and saying, this may be a good idea, it may not, but this is something that my instincts tell me, and if you’ve got me on the job, you probably want to hear my instincts, and then you can decide. It’s really encouraged me to look for a way to improve upon a moment, make sure there’s a scope, that the scope is there, if there’s any place to open it up, and just overthink everything.

My father died when I was early in my transition, which a lot of my larger family didn’t know about, so I didn’t have the intense experience that Blanca’s character had. But I had that intense fear, of stepping up and being introduced as my father’s son by the minister in front of people in my family that I hadn’t yet talked to or had the time to come out to. What I brought to “Mother’s Day” were those pressures, the way that funerals and weddings were always hard for me as a non-conforming queer person. I would just be a little less embraced because I wasn’t fitting. Not in a terrible way—my family’s very loving. But in the ’90s, there was a lot of homophobia surrounding AIDS; it was just a much harsher time to be overtly queer, and it was just a lot more threatening to people. So MJ [Rodriguez] and I talked about those scenes, which were really intense. And Elektra’s [Dominique Jackson] scene going into the surgery, we just shared personal moments, what that meant to go through those doors, and potentially risk losing her family. Those decisions, where you need it for yourself but don’t want to lose the people that you love—just a very tough choice.

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AVC: There’s something quietly political about your work and how you present stories about people that might have once been considered niche as almost ordinary.  

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SH: I am a very political person, but I also try to focus on the mess instead of the message, you know? [Laughs.] I feel like if I’m doing a message, I’m pushing people away. And if I just show the mess, I’m inviting them to understand the connection. So I do try to find that. I’ve worked with great collaborators. For me, with storytelling, the political goal is to connect instead of doing this further other-ing of ourselves by messaging. Because I know we all know the messages, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to impact people in a compassionate way.

AVC: We’ve basically been talking about the “burden of representation”—when the story you’re telling about marginalized people has to speak for all of them, whether or not you’ve designed it that way, because there are still too few trans directors or queer writers working. How has your relationship with that notion changed over the course of your career? 

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SH: I have been on shows where I felt it more acutely. I have wrestled with it. I was actually talking to Billy Porter about it, because we’re working on a documentary with Dominique Jackson, and he was saying maybe it’s more like ministering. You know, putting a positive phrase on it. I have PTSD from being queer and coming out in the AIDS pandemic and watching people die around me, and watching the world go, “That’s what you get” for being gay and queer and lesbian. But then I watch people who don’t come from that world do a great job with it because they’re taking risks that I’ve struggled to take because I’m having that burden of representation, meaning I want to do right and I want to protect things that might need protecting. That makes sense. So I try to be bold with the risks I take, which means working with people that I trust to take those kind of risks in the most honest way.

I think for a long time when there’s so little imagery of yourself, you can’t help but feel the burden in response to that. I’ve had people ask me, “Are you worried about being pigeonholed?” And I say, “No, because I tell stories about people, the people just happen to be trans. It doesn’t make it a niche perspective; it just is the story.” So I never feel pigeonholed. I’m like, I could tell stories about trans people for the rest of my life, or not trans people for the rest of my life. For me, I gravitate towards what I know, and I try to go towards more human things.

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AVC: How do you think we move on from that way of thinking, that this show or this movie or book has to speak for everyone from a given group?

SH: The goal is to embed a more from-the-ground-up authentic point of view. Having different voices in the room. Although it could have been pushed further, Transparent had writers like my friend Ali Liebegott, who’s a brilliant writer, but had never written for TV. Our Lady J’s a brilliant performer and writer and musician, had also never written for TV. It was a mix of new voices and veterans. They had Noah [Harpster] and Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], who were like the straight white guys that were very bold. It created a kind of tension and opportunity. A writers’ room can be like a family, so I imagine it’s hard to bring in different voices that are not familiar. But I think that that’s been very successful to see a variety of perspectives that might make it more challenging but interesting as a result. I also think Pose does that as well. Janet Mock had never directed or written a screenplay, and then of course she directed and wrote a screenplay. Steven [Canals] was crucial in making it inclusive.

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AVC: Looking through your credits, you can track this progression in the wider industry—I don’t think a show could get away with casting a cis actor to play a trans character anymore.  

SH: Yeah. I think even Jill said it in the interviews on season one. I remember hearing Jill say, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have cast differently, but Jeffrey Tambor’s always reminded me of my moppa.” There was just a resemblance. And I was like, oh, that’s pretty cool, admitting that this isn’t the kind of casting that is forward-moving. The next year, I heard someone interviewing Tambor; they said, “Jill Soloway said she wouldn’t have cast that way if she had known more, and you hear Tambor go, “Really? [They] did?” And I was like, oh God, this feels like a no-go subject.

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I think that the downfall of that is that Jeffrey was an example of thinking of it as a one-way street, you know? I think they were so vulnerable, and they were so going beyond their experience to do something and trying to do it so well. But thinking of it as a one-way street as opposed to a two-way street made it very short-sighted, and their limitations really… They really brought that down. They really disrespected the voice of Van [Barnes, Tambor’s assistant who accused him of sexual harassment], who was, with so much integrity, trying to just not allow another trans woman who was replacing her to be put in that same situation… It was painful to watch. It was really hard to see that unfold. We all loved the show and the work they did, but it was very stressful. People that have privilege don’t know the privilege that they have; they’ve just always had it. They don’t understand, you know? And I think it really is painful to watch when it’s done that way.

AVC: Dickinson also explores class and race—the show looks at what agency Emily had, as well as the constraints put upon her. There’s this great moment in one of the episodes you directed, “I Am Afraid To Own A Body,” where Henry, a Black man who works for her family, tells her, “Your life is easy, Emily Dickinson.” How did you apply your own intersectional approach to your work on this show? 

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SH: Yes, Dickinson is very aware of those differences. I was so excited to do that episode because, while I wouldn’t call Dickinson a comedy, it’s using humor to look at really intense things, which I love. In the comedy, I look for the drama; and in drama, I look for the comedy or moments of humor. I’m always looking for that tension. And I felt like this episode was the one that kind of got the most grounded in terms of these intersections, making fun of cultural appropriation and other things.

I talked with and just kind of hung out with the actor, Chinaza Uche, who plays Henry. The day we did the Shakespeare scene, I had Alena Smith come down, so we could just talk with the cast about what a tricky needle it was to thread. And that if there’s humor, it needs to land in the right place and then not land in the wrong place. We were also playing with things like Austin playing Desdemona, and committing to that, that’s not a joke. We were really going into the weeds of those moments.

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I think in this country, everybody is a bit gas-lit because we have this manifest destiny bullshit that says “no class, no race, no misogyny.” Everyone has the same chance, you just got to be good enough. You got to be smart enough and good enough, and if you’re not, that’s why you’re not there. I think the younger generation has an advantage because they do understand that white privilege doesn’t mean they haven’t had a hard time as a white person, it just means that’s the one thing they haven’t had a hard time about, you know? To say that these are distinctive things, that class exists, and exists in all ethnicities, does not deny a person’s experience. One doesn’t overrule the other, but there are subsets. It’s difficult to talk about it because then we have this overall denial system that says, “No, no, no, you just got to be good enough.”

In that moment, we see that yeah, Emily is trapped in this way, but she does not have the same experience physically as some of the other characters. The episode’s called “I Am Afraid To Own A Body” because it is all about the body: sexual assault and all of these ways that we are further disconnected by these difficulties. That scene was a rich moment, because it’s not a binary right or wrong—it’s just a paradox of difficulties that people are trying to manage, and still trying to connect.

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AVC: Emily Dickinson’s work is so well known, but not many people know much about her as a person. This show envisions her as kind of a prankster—“A Brief, But Patient Illness” has a real Ferris Bueller’s Day Off vibe. How did you play into that?

SH: I feel like recovered history is kind of in the air these days. Pose is doing that too, just acknowledging that the culture is coming from this culture that’s been denied access to it. Transparent did the same thing with its Holocaust reimagining, just having queer and trans people be a part of it. We know that history is just whoever has the power telling us what we have come from, which is so narrow. Around all of the stories that are known are all of these stories that did and have always influenced culture but don’t get told.

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So many stories of the past that are recovered are the conversations we’re having today. This story of Emily Dickinson is relevant because we’re in a country where basic civil rights are still in question. It’s kind of telling to look at that. When I taught, I told my students, you’re the culture creators. You have so much value in society, and I know it’s not translating. I constantly watch that go back and forth, and I hope that this time of difficulty helps us get closer to those voices being in the room, creating the shows, being the showrunners, and all of that.

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